How does a wooden puppet become a real boy? How does one tame a wild boy full of spirit? When does a boy become a man? What is the art of educating the young to become refined and civilized? Pinocchio shows that the wooden puppet—stubborn, slothful, and thankless–deserves the honor of boyhood when he acquires not only certain virtues like honesty, obedience, docility, and industriousness but also the virtues of the heart—a grateful heart, a kind heart, a caring heart, a devoted heart, and a charitable heart. These old-world Christian ideals Geppetto struggles to instill in the puppet—the boy who never studies, constantly breaks his promises, is always running away, ignoring good advice, and constantly begging for food. Pinocchio cannot gain the status of real boy unless he learns self-control, appreciates the goodness of Geppetto and the love of the fairy mother, and honors the timeless truths of proverbial wisdom that Geppetto strives to teach him.
These traditional sayings recur throughout the book: “disobedient children never do any good in this world”; lazy boys who never study become donkeys; beware of evil companions; “only the aged and crippled have a right to beg”; “remember that every man, rich or poor, must find something to do in this world”; and “hunger is the best cook.” The wooden son impervious to his father’s wisdom acts insolent to Geppetto; an idle Pinocchio makes excuses to avoid study and prefers to beg for food rather than work for his bread; the self-indulgent boy is easily tempted by idle amusements and evil companions that divert him from school and cheat him of his money; and the fastidious boy famished for food refuses to eat pears unless peeled. These are the traits of the wooden, obtuse puppet that changes into the real boy once he learns the invaluable lessons that Geppetto’s traditional wisdom offers youth.
The first lesson instructs the puppet in the law of moral consequences; a law that Pinocchio assumes does not exist or does not apply to him. Defying the proverbial truths, Pinocchio learns their lessons from the pain of experience rather than from respect for authority. Hanging on a nail on a tree, caught in an animal trap, confined to a doghouse, stuck in mud, and locked in jail, Pinocchio confesses, “How many dreadful things have happened to me! And I deserved them, for I am obstinate as a mule.” Later rather than sooner Pinocchio eventually comprehends the law of consequences that leads him to the truths of the moral life. Disobeying authority and defying rules to do as he wishes and to enjoy complete freedom, Pinocchio—always running away from home—soon finds himself with a collar in a doghouse where he acknowledges another hard truth he has been evading: “If I had been willing to study and to work, if I stayed home with my poor father—I would not be here now in this lonely place, working as a watchdog for a peasant.” Pinocchio must recognize the eternal law of cause of effect that governs the moral life as well as the physical world.
Another lesson that wisdom offers youth is a sense of appreciation for the true value of precious things. Geppetto sells his only winter coat to purchase Pinocchio the primer he needs for school, but the puppet then sells this costly book to go to the puppet show while “Geppetto stayed at home shivering in his shirt sleeves.” When Fire-eater the Showman learns of Gepetto’s poverty and sacrifice for his son, he offers five gold coins for Pinocchio as a gift to his father—money that Pinocchio entrusts to the Fox and Cat who tempt him to bury it in the Field of Miracles where he is told it will multiply—Pinocchio ignoring the Cricket’s warning: “Go back home, and carry the four gold pieces you have left to your poor father, who is weeping and longing for you.” Pinocchio neither appreciates the food on the table when he refuses to eat the pears nor the value of an education which he abandons to travel to Playland that lures him with the promise of no schools, no books, no masters, and a week with six Saturdays and one Sunday. When boys do not appreciate their fathers and mothers and the blessings of food, education, and love, they turn to doltish, brutish donkeys that have lost all refinement and sensitivity. Without the ability to tell the difference between a father and mother’s loving advice and the foolish counsel of idle companions, Pinocchio’s hard woodenness remains adamant.
However, Pinocchio finally becomes a real boy when he appreciates the patience and forgiveness of his father and mother that melt his heart. He eventually values the gift of their timeless wisdom that he sees proven by his wayward life. After nearly losing his father who is searching the seas for his lost son, Pinocchio finds Geppetto in the stomach of the shark and leads him out of the mouth, the young boy carrying the old man who cannot swim on his back: “You can come on my back, and I’ll carry you safely to the shore”— a gesture reminiscent of pious Aeneas with the weight of his father Anchises on his back as they flee from the burning of Troy. The boy who refused to study or to work engages in manual labor and weaves baskets to provide a cup of milk to this father. The puppet who put pleasure above duty and sold or lost precious gifts for idle amusements resolves, “I’ve worked until now for my father; from now on, I’ll work five hours longer every day for my kind mother.” Like pious Aeneas devoted to his aging father and like the Homeric heroes who find their lives incomplete until they repay their parents for their loving care, Pinocchio acknowledges his indebtedness and demonstrates his sense of appreciation by acquiring a good heart—the greatest lesson Geppetto and the Fairy instill in their puppet-boy. As the Fairy congratulates Pinocchio when the puppet becomes the real boy, “In return for your good heart, I forgive you all your past misdeeds. Children who love their parents, and help them when they are sick and poor, are worthy of praise and love . . . .”
The civilizing education of the home and devotion of a loving father and mother that pass on the wisdom and moral ideals of the ages change wooden puppets into grateful boys, grateful boys into generous men, and generous men into noble heroes with sacrificing hearts.
Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.